Sunday, December 16, 2007

Early Tudor Project Part 5 -- the enigmatic middle layer

Today's project has been engineering the black middle layer seen in this 1502 portrait of Katherine of Aragon.

If you've been following this project, you know that I have batted around some ideas about what purpose this middle layer serves in this ensemble. I am not the type to fixate on a hypothesis and declare: "This is how it was." One cannot assume that people in the 16th century did things for a certain reason just because it makes sense to us. We, no matter what our educational background and level of historical knowledge, are simply not 16th century people. The biggest danger historical reconstructionists face is assuming that because something makes sense to us, it made sense to the people whose artifacts we study. Indeed most often, we can have no real idea of the whys. We can only say, "This is the way this artifact was made." It ends there.

So in my mental gymnastics about this middle layer, I have tossed around a number of hypotheses which I recognise are impossible to prove. Knowing this, I was anxious to get on with reconstructing the ensemble because I believe that construction using period techniques can teach us much that mental gymnasitics and hypothesizing cannot.

And indeed, this time was not disappointing. But instead of teaching me which hypothesis was correct, the construction taught me what hypothesis has no chance of being correct. The middle layer cannot have anything to do with bust support. Drawing the layer tightly (as it would have to be to support the bust) distorts the right-angle front opening of this layer. And in every picture where this layer can be seen, one overriding characteristic of the garment is its 90-degree-ness.

Granted, this theory was not high on the list of probability since later examples of of the middle layer are open too far to provide bust support anyway.

(Unfortunately, I can't show you any pictures because my camera is still not functioning.)

Edit: Here's a picture taken with my broken camera. I apologise for the blur and lines:

I have a lovely hunk of black medium weight cashmere that I have been hoarding for the right project. So today I sacrificed it for this middle layer. I used the bodice of my Kampfrau Gown pattern as the basis because it is right-angled as well. But instead of cutting the back like the Kampfrau Gown, I eliminated the back neckline by cutting straight across the tops of the shoulder straps. I cut this from the wool as well as my black taffeta and pinned in on my mannequin over the smock and yellow undermost gown.

I cut the fronts from wool and taffeta according to the Kampfrau Gown pattern but elongated the shoulder straps so I could position the neckline lower and shift the shoulder seam past the shoulder. I didn't want it to be seen from the front since you cannot see the shoulder seam or the back in the portrait above or any similar contemporaneous portraits. I sewed the wool to the lining along the front edges, clipped the corners, turned the piece and pressed it well. Then I pinned the fronts in place on the mannequin. With a print of the portrait in my valiant assistant's hand, I positioned the fronts so they are just slightly higher than the top of the yellow gown's bodice. I positioned the shoulder straps as in the portrait as well. Everything laid well and looked like the lay of the garment in the portrait.

Unfortunately, this positioning made the fronts touch in the center and they should be about two inches apart. So I took the bodice fronts off the mannequin, made a second stitch 3/4" away from the first one, checked it on the mannequin, confirmed the measurements, pulled out the old stitches, cut off the excess, clipped the corners, turned and pressed the fronts. Then I pinned them on the mannequin again.

Success! The shoulder straps are in the right position, the angle to the horizontal is correct, and the opening between the fronts looks like the portrait. With the fronts pinned in position, I turn the side seam allowances under and whipstitch the seams closed, being careful to catch the lining in the seam. Then I made sure the shoulder straps were in the proper position as well and tucked those seam allowances under and whipstitched them down.

Before I began construction on this bodice, I wondered if I'd have to interline it or at least bone the front edges so they wouldn't gap. I was reticent to do this since the pictures of Thomas More's daughters show front edges that are obviously not boned. It's also rather early for boned bodices. But I wanted to avoid interfacing too. In the portrait, I can make out the roundness of Katherine's breasts and if I interlined the undermost layer and this layer, there might not be any roundness by the time we got to the outermost layer.

Pinning the sewn bodice in place on my mannequin demonstrated that no interlining or boning is necessary. The right angles of the middle layer leads me to believe that it was not laced tightly. A "reefed"* lacing of the front opening will do the trick.

My belief in no interlining or boning was reinforced when I sewed on the gold shells. The four or five stitches required to secured each shell have the edge of the bodice a little extra stiffening and the edge now feels quite stable. There are only two shells visible in the center front opening, but I sewed five just so you wouldn't see a blank space when I move. However I didn't want to continue lower than that as they will interfere with the lacing.

I have not yet decided on how to lace the front closed, but I don't think I want to make thread eyelets. I think this would distort the front too much. I may sew rings to each front edge. Have to think on that a little...

The only issue I have with the bodice at this point is that the shoulder straps curve over my upper chest instead of making straight lines like in the picture. Since I am not a terribly curvy person in the chest region (and neither is our Katherine), I am putting the straight lines in the portrait down to artistic license. I do not believe that this line can be that straight on a real human. It does, however, look asthetically pleasing in the portrait. So I'm not going to fret about this minor curve.

So that's where I've left it tonite. Tomorrow I can either work on the skirts or cut the smock neckline (finally!) and start embroidering.

Next: the skirts...

* "Reefed" as in when a sail is reefed, it's not too tight and not too loose, but just right.

© 2007 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Early Tudor Project Part 4 -- the yellow undergown

Well kids, I must apologise to you today. I worked on the yellow undermost gown for my Katherine of Aragon outfit yesterday and intended to post with photos of my reconstruction this morning. But my camera is not cooperating. It took a spill off the table this week when one of the doggies got enthusiastic about licking the stainless off her dinner bowl and the screen has been blank ever since. The funny thing is that the screen is showing all the functionalities and it will show archived pictures. But you can't see anything on the screen and all pictures taken are black. So until I can get Canon on the phone tomorrow and troubleshoot it, there will be no pictures. =(

But here's my construction process if you want to follow along:

I began by dyeing three yards of Chinene Shantung with Jacquard Acid Dye in Bright Yellow. I chose Chinese Shantung because it has a good deal of body without being heavy. It also has far fewer slubs than you would expect. And I had at least three yards of white in my fabric stash. For a gown that most people would "fake" with a placket, I figured it would do.

While the fabric was in the washing machine, I cut the bodice interlining. I cut the bodice according to my measurements incorporating a two-inch draw. In the portrait, the round shape of Katherine's breasts can be seen through the uppermost layer, so I know that the undermost layer cannot obscure them. Therefore the bodice needs to be unboned but draw like a corset. The interlining must be strong but not too stiff. I chose to use our hemp coutil (aka "linen ticken"). It's a simple twill weave, giving it strength, but remains soft and pliable.

(I really wish I could show you a picture! The shape of the breasts of my duct tape double looks exactly like the portrait of Katherine right now.)

Edit: here's a photo of the full garment taken with my malfunctioning camera:

And one of the bodice alone:

I cut a front and two backs out of this interlining and sewed them together at the side seams with a back stitch. This I did so the straight grain would be present at both center front and center back. One of the worst mistakes you can make with the structure of a bodice that needs to draw is to cut the bodice in one piece, making either the center front or center back on the bias. No amount of boning or stiffening can make up for this cutting error.

Once I was satisfied with the structure and fit of the interlining, I laid it on the lining material (black silk tafetta from Silk Connection) and cut the lining in one piece. I wrapped the lining around the interlining and pressed it flat. Then I laid the whole bit on the yellow silk (now dyed, washed again with Synthropol, and pressed dry) and cut the outer material. I removed the lining and outer material and sewed the top edge together with a running stitch. I put the interlining between these layers and rolled the lining a little so it would show as a black line as in the portrait. Then I folded the yellow seam allowances under and prick stitched them through all layers along the top edge and back opening. I made a basting stitch along the waistline to secure the layers together and to mark where the skirts would attach.

I made parallel (not offset) thread eyelets along the center back in Splendor silk embroidery floss in yellow (S876). Then I laced the bodice onto my duct tape double to check the fit. It's perfect! The top of the bodice comes to the right place on my body as in the portrait and the shape of the breasts shows through well. Mission accomplished!

(Damn, I wish I could show you!)

Next I cut two floor-length panels of silk and knife pleated them to the bodice with the opening at center back. I used the basting stitch around the waistline as my guide. I decided to make the waist at natural level rather than with a front point as you see in later gowns. Even though only a small part of this gown will ever be seen, I want to construct it properly. The overgowns in this early time period (c 1500) do not appear to be waisted, at least not in front, but the gowns worn by common women appear to have a seam at the natural waist. Extrapolating that the uppermost gown of the working class could be of a similar construction to the undergown of the nobility, I went with a pleated skirt at natural waist level. This may prove troublesome as I build the other layers on top of it.

I chose not to line the skirts of this layer. My reasoning it two-fold. One is warmth -- the event site for 12th Night will likely be heated and I do not want to be uncomfortable. The other is bulk. Nothing can be seen of Katherine's skirts in her portrait, but other portraits from the same time period don't indicate a great bulk of skirts under the gown. This is only the undermost layer of a three-gown ensemble. The uppermost layer of Katherine's outfit in the portrait is heavy velvet and appears to be lined with black. It may even be lined with fur as are some contemporaneous gowns in portraits. So the top layer may be quiet bulky in its own right. And let us not forget the middle layer which as yet is unknown. Therefore I don't want to add uncessary bulk in the yellow layer.

Although Katherine is credited with the introduction of the farthingale, I cannot find a picture of her (or anyone similarly dressed) wearing one in the first years of the 1500s. I have been assuming that since she was living in England at the time of her portrait and it was painted by Henry VII's court painter, she is wearing English styles which didn't yet include the farthingale. These styles are echoed in contemporaneous portraits of Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII's sister who married the Scottish King) and some Netherlandish ladies. So I made this undermost layer light and unbulky.

Next: the infamous and enigmatic middle layer...

© 2007 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Early Tudor Project Part 3 -- prep work

Well, today was the day that I stopped staring at pictures of Katherine of Aragon and started working on the outfit. In line with my own preaching, I decided to work from the inside out. I started with the smock.

The smock of this gown is barely visible, but what we can see is unpleated and lays flat against the skin. It also has a square neckline that follows the neckline of the gowns worn over it. I made my smock using stitches and construction techniques seen on later smocks, assuming that a square-necked, unpleated smock at the beginning of the 16th century would probably be very similarly constructed as a square-necked, unpleated smock at the end of the century.

I started with 3.5 oz bleached linen from I measured my bust, divided that number in half and added four inches for ease. Then I cut a piece that width by 90" long. This will make a calf-length smock on me which is as long as a smock ever should be. (They were not ankle length as is sometimes seen in costume shops.) I cut two rectangles 24" long by 20" wide for the sleeves and two gussets 5" by 5" for the underarms. There are some leftover pieces for cuffs and side gores that I will add later. I assembled the smock using a flat fell stitch and left the neckline uncut. I will cut only a slit big enough to get the smock on my dress dummy until the undergown is done since the neckline of the smock depends on where the neckline of the gown falls.

My real work today was determining the embroidery stitches to use around the edge of the smock. This is four strands of black Splendor silk floss (the 12-strand floss divides in three four-strand bits and then down further to single strands. It's lovely stuff). I did a simple picot (one backstitch, really) over eight threads with eight threads in between. And then did Greek crosses over eight threads eight threads below that. (The yellow picots and crosses will alternate with the black.)

I put my gold shells on the linen to give an idea of scale. I thought the stitches looked too tiny, so I tried less thread and also bigger stitches. Below the top row is four strands over twelve threads and the bottom row is two strands over eight threads:

Which do you think is the way it's done in the picture? Or do you have other ideas?

Next: the dyeing the undergown. Yellow for mourning?...